Colin Legum

Fleet Street's first Africa correspondent

Colin Legum, writer and journalist: born Kestell, South Africa 3 January 1919; married 1941 Eugenie Leon (died 1960; one son deceased), 1960 Margaret Roberts (three daughters); died Cape Town 8 June 2003.

After spending half of his life as a successful journalist, writer and broadcaster in Britain, Colin Legum asserted that he had never become "an assimilated Englishman". His "Free State upbringing had bred a murg en been [bred in the bone] South African". He saw "the decolonisation of Africa from a front-row seat" and as Fleet Street's first Africa correspondent, on David Astor's Observer, he had reported and interpreted the African transformation in a way that helped create a sympathetic, well-informed body of opinion in Britain and beyond.

He was able also, through the friendships he established with the leaders of the emergent Africa of the 1950s and 1960s, to ease their relationships with their former British masters and to build bridges with highly placed American friends.

Legum was not a sudden convert to African aspirations. Born in the Orange Free State dorp of Kestell, where his Lithuanian immigrant parents kept the local hotel, he was schooled with the local Afrikaans children until at 17 he headed for Johannesburg and found work as office boy at the new, local Sunday Express, whose political correspondent he became after only two years.

He was already an embryonic Africanist, avant les lettres, but also a staunch Zionist. Rejection of Marxism-Leninism and socialist-democratic convictions brought him on to the reform movement in the South African (white) Labour Party, on whose ticket he was elected to the Johannesburg City Council in 1942. While editing its weekly Forward and The Mineworker for the Labour Party he became City Council Leader and chaired the General Purposes Committee.

With a black population explosion in Johannesburg, he was, as chair of the Special Housing Committee, the adversary of shanty-town bosses beyond the law. His epic struggle with the most notorious of these, James Mpanza, in a part of what is now Soweto, left scars on his relationship with the Communist Party which were reopened 50 years later by an attack on his role in Joe Slovo's posthumous autobiography, Slovo (1995).

Legum saw more clearly than most that the advent of the Afrikaner Nationalists to power in 1948 had put an end, perhaps for his lifetime, to his political hopes for the country which was no place for a crusading journalist. As General Secretary of the Labour Party he had tried to ally it with General Jan Smuts's United Party, defeated by D.F. Malan's Nationalists that same year. Smuts told him:

Reaction has struck its roots very deep in this land of ours. It will take years to overcome it - but don't tell the people that.

Not words for an idealistic newspaperman.

He came to London in 1949 with few contacts and Fleet Street seemed impregnable until work on a research team at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations brought him into contact with a fellow Freudian also undergoing psychoanalysis, the millionaire owner and neophyte editor of The Observer. David Astor, who had a flair for fruitful association with, among others, Adam von Trott, George Orwell and the Rev Michael Scott, pioneer spokesman for dispossessed communities at the United Nations, identified Colin Legum as a key player in the struggle ahead to end apartheid, which he saw as a disease that might spread if unchecked. This was part of the cause of African freedom and the end of colonial rule throughout Africa, put in peril by growing British reaction to the gruesome downside of the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya.

A programme for change was defined in a Penguin Special of 1952, Attitude to Africa, written by Scott, Legum, W. Arthur Lewis and Martin Wight and activated by the launch that year of the all-party Africa Bureau, with Scott (deported by the Smuts government in 1946) as its director and another South African exile, Mary Benson, its secretary.

Its offshoots the Africa Publications and Education Trusts were early prophets of and agents for change in Africa. Legum was active in both, but in the clash between Scott, with Astor, and Christian Action in the person of Canon John Collins, a newcomer to the southern African cause, Legum - not always easy to get on with in those competitive years - remained a close friend of all of them.

The bureau became an important mouthpiece for progressive policies towards Bechuanaland, the ill-conceived Central African Federation, the independence movement in Namibia and elsewhere, with an influence beyond Westminster, in the Commonwealth and at the UN. The Observer provided vital press backing to its work, through Legum, Anthony Sampson and a growing team of Africanists.

Legum's exile life runs like a thread through the developments in Africa - from the hurricane-like "wind of change", the Congo disasters, Biafra, the end of Portuguese Africa, to the struggle for freedom in Namibia and elsewhere.

In 1960, after the death of his wife, who had followed him to England with their son in the Tavistock days, he married Margaret Roberts, South African economist, political activist and Fabian, and together they published South Africa: crisis for the West (1964), the first appeal for sanctions against the apartheid government in South Africa. They were banned from South Africa in 1962 (and later from Southern Rhodesia) but managed a memorable tour by hopping from one quasi-independent "Bantustan" to another, scattered as they were like inkblots over the Transvaal, Natal and the Cape.

With the transfer of The Observer to "Tiny" Rowland in 1982, Legum, by then Associate Editor, ended 30 years with the paper, which had taken him to some 70 countries, and carried millions of words in his articles. The last of his many books was published in 1998 as Africa since Independence, and offers a realistic profit-and-loss account and a cautious but hopeful scenario for the years ahead.

In 1996, the Legums made their home in Kob Cottage, overlooking Kalk Bay fishing harbour near Cape Town, where Colin continued his long-running annual Africa Contemporary Record and his Third World Reports feature service. Annual visits to Britain, trout fishing, gardening and children and grandchildren played a larger part than before but he was full of energy - giving a course on African developments at the University of Cape Town summer school in January this year.

He was given honorary degrees by Rhodes University, Grahamstown (who neatly made him doctor legum - doctor of laws) and the University of South Africa in Pretoria. Though there was perhaps a lack of recognition from the ANC government - ex-President Nelson Mandela excepted - despite his 50 years of loyal, unstinting support, he was widely seen as a grandfather figure among the apostles of African emancipation, South African democracy and in the larger field of human rights.

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